Inconvenient truths of a chilling new climate movie

A film set to send a shiver up the spine of climate sceptics has had its Australian Premiere at the Melbourne International Film Festival, which opened over the weekend.

It tells the story of James Balog, an acclaimed photographer whose main work has been for the National Geographic magazine. Originally he was something of a sceptic about the ability of man to impact on the global climate. This changed when Balog did a very successful cover story on glacier melting in 2005 – which became the most read story for National Geographic in five years.

As a result, Balog established the Extreme Ice Survey to produce time lapse photography to show the dramatic shrinkage underway in glaciers across the Arctic – picking 25 sites in Iceland, Greenland and Alaska.

Using still cameras and special timers designed to withstand the freezing conditions, the project eventually collected millions of images spread over three years to create time lapse movies, visually documenting the speed of glacial melting.

The results are dramatic and spectacular on the wide screen. Filmmaker Jeff Orlowski won the cinematography award at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival for Chasing Ice and audience awards at several other festivals.

An Inconvenient Truth premiered in Australia at the 2006 Melbourne International Film Festival and went on to huge success as a commercial cinema release, often credited with galvanising public concern about climate change.

Chasing Ice has similar potential and is made more accessible by telling the story of how the photos were collected. Balog recruited several young scientists and adventurers to join him in travelling to some extremely inhospitable locations and after initial setbacks finally worked out how to get their equipment to keep functioning in conditions their manufacturers could never have envisaged – sub zero temperatures and gale force winds.

Like An Inconvenient Truth, the film tries to humanise the story with a distracting back story about Balog and his family. Suffering from a damaged knee, he wilfully disregards his doctor’s orders and soldiers on into the wilderness. The intention is to appear heroic but the Australian audience found his obstinacy highly amusing.

The film is the product of work done prior to the Copenhagen Summit, and in fact some of the images were used as part of the public debate at that time. However this is the first time they have been seen together with the explanation of the immense work that went into collecting them.

Climate sceptics like to think they have somehow ‘disproved’ that glaciers are proof of climate change – partly because of the twisted debate over the mis-statement in the IPCC report about the Himalayan glaciers.

However, no-one seeing this film can be in any doubt about the consistent and dramatic evidence that glaciers are melting and retreating faster than they have at any time historically.

The annual ebb and flow is evident in the time lapse photography but the net result is an overall dramatic retreat – to the extent that cameras had to be repositioned just to keep the edge of the glacier in shot. Whether the recent wetter periods in Australia have resulted in different outcomes will have to await further seasons of image collection – which is continuing.

Various glaciologists appear in the film explaining other work that demonstrates the impact of climate change. Countering claims that some glaciers are in fact growing – a study of 1400 glaciers in the Yukon is explained which shows that over 30 years, 300 had disappeared, four had grown and the remainder had all shrunk to some degree.

No date has been set for an Australian cinema or TV release but it has a distributor, Madman. An earlier presentation by James Balog including excerpts from the time lapse photography can be seen on TED.

And for something entirely different in global environmental movies, it is hard to go past ¡Vivan las Antipodas! directed by Victor Kossakovsky. He has gone to four of the few pairs on Earth where land is on both sides of the Antipodes. For those without a globe- Siberia and Patagonia, Shanghai and northern Argentina, Hawaii and Botswana and Spain and New Zealand.

In each place he has filmed ordinary people in breathtaking scenery and spectacular wildlife. He makes unusual Antipodian connections – the lava flows in Hawaii and an elephants skin in Botswana, a river crossing with two people a day in Argentina and one with seemingly 2 million in Shanghai. Kossakovsky frequently rolls the camera to invert the image as we move from place to place. The film has the reassuring message that, whatever damage we have done so far, the world is still a big place with lots of amazing things to see.

Andrew Herington is a Melbourne freelance writer.